EVER since ``Why Johnny Can't Read'' appeared, American education has been criticized as a failure. Best-sellers argue that our students don't know enough. From kindergarten to college, educators have examples of unacceptable ignorance and reform proposals to achieve educational excellence. The proposals share an emphasis on course content as the key to improving education. The presumption is that our students are ignorant because we don't teach enough. What students learn and retain is more complex, however. Ultimately, the incentives students face determine what they learn. And learning incentives are intertwined with testing procedures.
For most students, grades are the primary motivator for educational achievement. Good grades require mastering test material, not mastering all that is taught. Therefore, while expanding the curriculum makes it possible to learn more, unless tests better reward learning what is important, the results will be disappointing.
Students often face test questions that reward less important forms of learning than those emphasized in education-reform proposals. Tests give serious ``why'' questions (the ultimate goal of education) insufficient attention, substituting objective, memorized minutiae of who, what, when, where, and how. Such questions reward neither depth nor breadth of understanding, much less retention. They stimulate excellence in the wrong kind of learning (regurgitation of isolated, memorized, quickly forgotten facts), at the expense of the kind esteemed by reformers (coherent, retained understanding). While inappropriate testing is little noted in reform discussions, current educational results strongly confirm both its prevalence and importance.
Evidence indicates that even good students retain beyond the school years (or even the class period) a remarkably small percentage of what is taught. If students were taught about and tested on understanding important ``why'' questions, they would see their education's value and retain it far better than they do now.
Academic success is very poorly correlated with measures of future success. If students were not systematically mistrained to learn for the wrong kind of questions, the large investment required to achieve high grades would more likely pay off in valuable skills, and future success.
Students' interest and enrollment in fields like history - where grades often depend on command of rote-memorized trivia - are falling. Meanwhile, people in the ``real world'' are rediscovering these fields. Maybe people are freed to learn what they consider important and interesting about history only when emancipated from the classroom emphasis on trivial pursuit.
Consider the difficulties faced by older, returning students. The low ``return'' on short-term memorization in the ``real world'' has caused that talent to atrophy in them, but they must compete on that basis with students continually trained as specialists in it. Even if they understand the ``why'' questions, that understanding is not tested, and the mature students are unwilling to memorize every unimportant detail just for the sake of a higher test score.
Consider the incredible amount of cheating in academia - from plagiarism, to fraternity test and paper files, to a booming market in purchased papers. If students believe they are being tested on irrelevant and useless information, cheating becomes a rationalized substitute for learning it. This also adds to the cynicism toward education that results from inappropriate testing, a negative attitude that remains long after formal schooling, and which can destroy what might otherwise be a lifetime of learning.
Consider groups with low academic ``achievement'' and higher dropout rates. Their behavior may in large part reflect a belief, reinforced by inappropriate testing, that there is little value for them in what they are forced to learn to succeed in school.
Students have shown us that they learn and remember little of importance when we don't test them on what is important. It's time we gave more thought to reforming the questions we ask, as well as how and what we teach, if we want to improve education in this country.